Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Turkey - Not Istanbul

Ankara, Izmir, Efes, Sart - Turkey

Some cities are so big so as to take on a life and culture separate from their country. Good examples are Bangkok and New York. Both are fine towns, but they in no way typify Thailand or the USA. Fearing this might be the case with Istanbul, we decided to see a bit of the rest of Turkey before hitting the bright lights of the big city.

Our first port of call was the capital, Ankara. It is not a terribly nice place. Jason remarked that our arrival there reminded him of our first glimpses of Tallinn. I have to agree. There is something decidedly post-Soviet about the grey concrete buildings, wide avenues, and monuments to revolutionary heros. The city is in a functional state of repair, but could use a bit of work. For example, there was a large park very close to the commercial center, but it was dotted with piles of trash and broken concrete and the artificial pond was empty. The fading paddle boats looked positively morose resting on the concrete bottom. The walls of the old citadel are inhabited by a warren of little homes that reward a wander, but the area would be more picturesque if it were not so depressingly poor. The highlight of the visit was The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations - a fine collection of artifacts starting from the stone age chronicling the many peoples that have lived in and around Ankara. It is housed in a particularly pleasant restored building that makes excellent use of natural light.

We travelled from Ankara to Izmir on a very comfortable bus that proved to be typical of Turkey's efficient coach network. The countryside between Turkey's 2nd and 3rd cities was dominated by orderly farms on gently rolling green hills. Agriculture in those parts seemed very much in harmony with the landscape. The only thing that broke up the scene was the occasional war monument on the crest of a hill and our eventual arrival. Izmir is on the Aegean coast, but is not really that scenic of a place. The view from a ruined fortress above the town was worth the walk, but more for the urbanscape than the natural beauty. We used the city as a base for two expeditions to nearby sites of archaeological interest.

The first outing was down to coast to the ruined city of Ephesus (Efes in Turkish - like the beer). It was easily reached by a bus from Izmir and a pleasant walk under some shady trees. The site has everything that you would expect from a Greek ruin: a giant amphitheater, broken columns, impressive facades, marble roads, and lots of important looking inscriptions. Even the weather (bright sun) and the land (arid hills) met expectations. At one point, the city had been where a river met the sea, but the river silted up. This ruined the harbor and set the town into a long period of decline from which it did not recover. We stood where the city docks had once been, but the sea was nowhere in sight. Efes is full of historical interest, but it is this geologic oddity (how did the ocean recede so far so fast?) that really captured my imagination.

Our second expedition was to the ancient city of Sardis (Sart in Turkish). The city had been occupied by a number of civilizations and is most famous for having been the home of the semi-mythical King Midas. The remaining ruins date to the Greeks, though. Most prominent are a largely intact gymnasium and bath and a temple to Artemis that was unearthed only in the last 50 years. Sardis is a bit further off the beaten track, and it showed. Explanatory panels were thin, but we were free to scramble around by ourselves. The walk there from the road goes past a village and some small farms set against the backdrop of a knife-like ridge. It was a good day out and ultimately for memorable for the scenery than the archaeology.


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